Dee Rees’s new film “Mudbound” tells the story of two families living on the Mississippi delta during the 1940s, one of them a family of white landowners, and the other a family of Black tenant farmers who work on their land. Memphis native Laura McAllen (Carey Mulligan, “The Great Gatsby”) is one day dragged by her husband, Henry (Jason Clarke, “Everest”), to Mississippi after he spontaneously decides to become a farmer. Henry’s idealized, picture perfect concept of farm living is quickly shattered as the difficult realities of rural southern society set in. Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund, “Unbroken”), meanwhile, is sent off to fight in World War II.
Living on the McAllen’s land is the Jackson family, poor tenant farmers who have worked on the same patch of land for generations. Hap (Rob Morgan, “Stranger Things”) and Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige, “Betty and Coretta”) are shaken when their eldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell, “Straight Outta Compton”), is drafted into the army. The film deftly compares the experiences of these two families, each one in some fashion reliant upon the other. Rees tells these stories with complete and total honesty, and never opts to embellish for the sake of the plot. In doing so, she crafts a depiction of a time period that feels so real and vivid that it doesn’t need over-the-top melodrama to draw audiences in. Everything about “Mudbound” feels real, and it makes the experience incredibly poignant.
While “Mudbound” may touch on issues like war and family life, the central point of discussion in the film is race relations, and it does an incredible job of depicting them. The tendency in many films such as “Mudbound” is to offer depictions of racism and race relations that are, for as shocking as the content may be, decidedly one-dimensional; many a period-piece have depicted racism, but few dug as deep as “Mudbound.” The film identifies a uniquely American facet of society wherein social class is not decided by wealth, but rather by race. This is actively dichotomized with European society when Ronsel ships overseas and is shocked at the equitable treatment he receives there.
The film recognizes the unique and obsessive way that Americans think about and comprehend race. Rather than trying to pigeonhole racism as an individual phenomenon, “Mudbound” depicts it as a pillar of American society, and the means by which Americans define social power dynamics. The film recognizes that racism is more than just something that children are taught by their parents, and instead recognizes it as the frame of reference through which Americans experienced their whole lives during that time period.
For as omnipresent as the film’s depictions of prejudice may be, Rees never seems to lose hope. Throughout the film, individual characters are shown to reach across lines of racial division through shared experiences. This is shown most keenly in the relationship between Jamie and Ronsel who become unlikely friends after the war as they struggle to cope with PTSD. Their friendship is never depicted as some magical cure for racism, but rather as a bond shared between individuals who have broken out of the social current of their time. While hopeful depictions of race relations are present, the film never lets audiences forget the glacial pace at which society changes, and the consequences that can befall individuals who challenge the status quo.
“Mudbound” is something of a slow burn; it takes its time getting audiences thoroughly immersed before striking its emotional climax, but when it arrives the result is some of the most emotionally impactful filmmaking of the year. The film takes viewers on an emotional journey filled with both bittersweet sentimentality and, at times, unforgivingly brutal harshness. Its unapologetically honest depiction of race relations make it an extremely important film in a modern America that still feels the pain of racial tensions. Impressing on all fronts, Dee Rees has created a soulful and impactful film that will endure beyond the awards season.